There are numerous volumes on art and artists on my bookshelf – exhibition catalogues, biographies, monographs, essays, art theoretical writings and more. If I wrote in my last post that bookstores are among the first places that I explore in a city that is new to me, the same can be saidfor galleries and art museums. It is therefore not surprising that I am following this example in Dhaka as well.
An opulent, heavy and elaborately designed volume about the painter Safiuddin Ahmed was one of the first that I bought in Dhaka. Safiuddin Ahmed was born in Calcutta in 1922 and died in Dhaka in 2012. He had lived in East Pakistan, later Bangladesh, since 1947.
Ahmed came from an educated and devout but liberal Muslim family in Kolkata. After the early death of the father, the mother raised her children alone. Safiuddin showed early talent and interest in drawing; one of his later teachers at the art academy, convinced his mother against her initial resistance to allow her son to become an artist.
A catalog essay by the poet Kaiser Haq goes into the historical background and context, especially of the artist’s younger years. These were years of political debates about the future of British India, the notorious famine years, fights about the relationship between the different religions and the different ethnic groups, but also about the subtle racism of the British colonial rulers, which was also reflected in the art education. Just before the painter began his studies it was heavily focused on handicrafts and was oriented exclusively to western traditions, since the locals were denied any true understanding of art. But Ahmed was lucky – he benefited from the reform efforts of the 1930s, which brought about a departure from this pattern, and above all from exceptionally good teachers, about whose importance the painter gives moving expression in an interview printed in the volume.
After the partition of Bengal (and India) in 1947, Ahmed settled in Dhaka, East Bengal, which at the time was still a relatively small city without an art scene comparable to Calcutta. With some other painters, emigrants from Calcutta like himself, he founded the first art school in Dhaka, which is now a separate faculty of Dhaka University. Ahmed taught printmaking here, a technique he had taught already briefly in Calcutta and for which he was particularly talented.
What follows is an artist career in quite difficult conditions: politically due to the suppression of the Bengali language and culture by West Pakistan, and the later, extremely bloody Bangladesh independence struggle in 1971; but also because of arguments about the role of the artist in society; several heavy floods, in which part of his work was lost, also contributed to the fact that the artist led a rather eventful, not easy life.
A longer catalog essay by Syed Azizul Haque deals with Safiuddin Ahmed’s artistic career. Themes from everyday life in the village, portraits, sketches of nudes, semi-abstract works, still lifes and repeated scenes in which water plays a major role – Ahmed, who had empathy for ordinary people and was personally very humble, had a broad range of topics.
A great diversity can also be seen in the techniques he used. Drawings, watercolours, woodcuts, drypoint etchings and aquatints, engravings – a technique he learned during a long stay in London – and oil paintings show his versatility here too. His preference for the color black, which plays a central role in many of his works, is striking, as is his interest in learning new techniques or perfecting them, even as he gets older.
Decades of teaching enabled Ahmed to earn a regular income and therefore he rarely needed to sell any of his work. In the interview mentioned above, he says:
„I love my creations and don’t wish to part with them…I have no desire to sell paintings to those who collect them in order to boost their social status.”
The works presented in this blog post are from the Estate von Safiuddin Ahmed. You can see more of his work on a website dedicated to him. Or even better: you get a copy of this beautiful book!
Rosa Maria Falvo (ed.) with an introduction by Kaiser Haq and an essay by Syed Azizul Haque: Safiuddin Ahmed, Skira / Bengal Foundation, Milano / Dhaka 2011
The Silences of Hammerstein is a book by Hans Magnus Enzensberger about a German general and his family, reflecting important periods of 20th-century German history.
The book is not a novel, but also not a normal non-fiction book, but to a certain extent a hybrid – while the author mainly follows the diverse sources on the life of the Hammersteins and retells and classifies them like a good historian, there are also fictional elements: Enzensberger “interviews” his long deceased characters and in these fictitious conversations aspects are reflected that usually go unnoticed in a non-fiction book, such as the supposedly sometimes different view of the historical persons on the events described in the book or things about which the available sources do not provide any information, but which are of equal interest to author or reader.
Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord (1878-1943) came from old but impoverished Prussian nobility. For impoverished aristocrats, the military was the only possible career at that time and so Kurt von Hammerstein entered a cadet school as a child, where he made friends that were to be of great importance for his later successful career. His military career was crowned in 1930, when the general became chief of the army command and thus supreme commander of the Reichswehr, a post he gave up after Hitler came to power because he was hostile to the Nazis.
Hammerstein experienced his youth in the German Empire, then the First World War at the front, the difficult years after WWI and the Versailles Treaty, which gave Germany sole responsibility for the war, Germany’s foreign policy rapprochement with the Soviet Union and the close military cooperation between the Red Army and the Reichswehr, the turbulent final phase of the Weimar Republic, the rise of Hitler and the Nazi dictatorship. An eventful life indeed, a life in which someone in a prominent military position like Hammerstein often faced difficult and far-reaching decisions. For this reason alone the book about this relatively unknown general is of great interest.
Apart from the historical dimension, the author – and of course the reader – wonders what kind of person the hero of this book was. For example: Was Hammerstein a good husband and father? The record is mixed here – as is the case with probably all husbands and fathers. Hammerstein was without doubtdevoted to his wife and he had married for love. He had pushed it through against the initial resistance of his future father-in-law. General von Lüttwitz, Hammerstein’s superior for a long time, valued the young officer on the one hand, but considered his daughter’s marriage to this have-not to be inappropriate. In the end Lüttwitz agreed so as not to stand in the way of his daughter’s happiness.
Later, during his absences during the war and thereafter, Hammerstein’s wife often felt that she was on her own. The by no means brilliant salary of a Prussian (later German) general staff officer meant that domestic staff (except for a nanny) was not available and the wife not only had to keep a tight budget to obtain the household with many children, but also to manage the a lot of social obligations as the wife of a general.
In addition, Hammerstein had the habit of leaving domestic and official responsibilities behind and going on extensive hunting trips. Officially, that never really seems to have gotten him into trouble. The important personalities within the army and the Reichswehr Ministry were his personal friends, who liked to turn a blind eye when the general, who was valued for his abilities, was again untraceable for a while. In his own family, these absences were not so well received.
Even as a father, he was often absent. This does not mean that he was not interested in his children, rather he gave them a great deal of freedom from an early age and never interfered in his children’s personal or political affairs. He knew that three of his daughters were members of the Communist Party and also had Jewish friends and accepted it without any ifs or buts, just like the role that two of his sons later played in being involved in preparing the assassination attempt on Hitler.
Hammerstein’s sloppy handling of military secrets enabled his daughters to make many important documents available to the Soviets. Hammerstein was also in the Soviet Union for a longer time in the 1920s and maintained friendly relations with some high-ranking military figures there, in particular with Marshal Tukhachevsky.
The object of this German-Soviet military cooperation was, on the one hand, a transfer of know-how from which mainly the Soviets benefited. On the other hand, the agreement gave ‘unofficial’ units of the Reichswehr – the so-called Black Reichswehr – an opportunity to train in the Soviet Union, particularly with technologies that were forbidden to Germany according to the Versailles Treaty, such as the airforce. Hammerstein was the man to organize the whole scheme from the German side.
How is Hammerstein to be classified politically? Like most officers of his time, he had a conservative upbringing, but apparently without the strongly anti-Semitic views that were common at the time. He was skeptical and opposed to political radicalism. He distanced himself from the Kapp Putsch early on, although it was organized by General von Lüttwitz, his father-in-law (Kapp was just a figurehead). After meeting Hitler personally at a dinner in the late 1920s, he knew the man was a nutcase. After Hitler was appointed Chancellor by de facto dictator Hindenburg (without the participation of the Reichstag), Hammerstein, who was also called the Red General because of his alleged sympathies for the political left, resigned. After 1933 he belonged to the resistance groups against Hitler within the military.
In this context it is noteworthy that what was probably the most promising opportunity to end the dictatorship of Hitler and the Nazis went unused in 1934. In the so-called ‘Night of the Long Knives’, during which Ernst Röhm and several other SA leaders were arrested and murdered, the new regime also used the situation to get rid of other potential enemies of their regime, including Hammerstein’s childhood friend, Kurt von Schleicher, a former Chancellor. While the Reichswehr shed no tears for the dead SA leaders, it was different with the murder of Schleicher and the ‘beheading’ of the army leadership. At this point in time, a military putsch against Hitler would have had a good chance of success, but the window of opportunity passed due also to Hammerstein’s reluctancy to make a decision.
What is also interesting about the Hammerstein family members is that none of them were actually Nazis and that the Nazis were always aware regarding their critical attitude towards the regime. Hammerstein himself died in 1943 from a tumor that was treated too late. The family refused the state funeral and ‘forgot’ Hitler’s funeral wreath, so the event took place with close family and friends only. In the final phase of the war, the Hammerstein family was taken into Sippenhaft (clan custody), but they survived an odyssey under SS guards unscathed.
The final chapters of the book are devoted to the post-war fate of Hammerstein’s surviving wife and children. It is interesting how many connections there were between the Hammersteins and important personalities not only in German history, without this being pointed out as particularly noteworthy by any member of the family in their recollections and memoirs. It is not really clear whether this characteristic of not making a fuss about oneself is typical of the Prussian nobility, as the author seems to believe, or whether it is rather a trait of this particular family.
A consistently interesting book, of particular interest to those readers who already have some prior knowledge of German history.
I read the excellent English translation by Martin Chalmers. Seagull Books in Calcutta is one of the best publishers of translated literature in the Anglophone world. Check out their programme (if you haven’t done it yet)!
Hans Magnus Enzensberger: The Silences of Hammerstein (tr. Martin Chalmers), Seagull Books, Calcutta London New York, 2017
My last blog post dealt with the anthology Contemporary Bangladeshi Poetry, an extensive selection from the work of Bengali poets from Bangladesh over the last few decades. Today I would like to refer to another poetry anthology from Bangladesh, in which the focus of the selection is set differently.
Monsoon Letters – Collection of Poems is a small selection of poems written in English, mostly by younger authors. The brochure contains one poem each by 36 authors and is therefore much less extensive than the selection I discussed earlier. However, here too the spectrum of voices and topics is diverse, and the approach to poetry by most authors is noticeably different from those contributing to Contemporary Bangladeshi Poetry. One can agree with the literary critic Fakrul Alam, who rightly points out the somewhat uneven quality of the poems, but also emphasizes that
„the anthology shows that most of these poets appear as if striving to be distinctive, and with the dare of youth, attempting to strike out in new directions. A handful of the poems suggest to me that new poetic voices are emerging, and we would soon be welcoming these Bangladeshi writings in English.”
An example from the collection:
An Unnoticed Kite
by Kohinur Khyum Tithila
The sky was bright and blue,
The meadow was full of happy children.
They gathered to fly kitesBlue, red, green, pink
Colorful the kites were!
Happy, free children
And their kites.
The sky was bright and azure.
But I saw what one kite saw
The sky seemed gray forever.
Then came the twilight.
The unbridled playtime was over.
They went back to home.
They and their kites.
But I saw one kite, She tore up the string
But not to fall down,
Her heart got wings.
Higher, higher and higher.
Then I saw what the kite saw.
The sky was bright, blue and free.
I am looking forward to reading more Bangladeshi poetry in the future. Stay tuned!
Monsson Letters, eds. WRITE Foundation/The University Press Limited, Dhaka 2014
Before I moved to Dhaka in Bangladesh for work-related reasons in October 2021, I knew almost nothing about the literature of the country, which has around 165 million inhabitants. Prose and poetry authors in Bangladesh publish mainly in Bengali and English, with a small number of authors writing in Urdu or other minority languages. Bengali / Bangla is also spoken in neighboring West Bengal. In India, Bengali is the most widely spoken language after Hindi.
Although Bengali is one of the ten languages in the world with the highest number of native speakers, the literature written in this language is hardly noticed outside of South Asia. This may be due to the fact that there are few translators who can translate Bengali texts into another language, but also because there is still little interest in the so-called western world in literature that does not repeat the orientalist cliché of the “exotic” India and its neighboring countries, a cliché that is so common in most English-language books or films coming from South Asia – even when there are of course positive exceptions. Even a Rabindranath Tagore was specifically awarded the Nobel Prize for his works written in English – his Bengali texts are far less well received to this day.
I would therefore like to take the opportunity to present works on my blog that were written in Bangla but are also available in English translation. The Bangladeshi or Bengali literature is diverse and there are interesting authors to discover. Today I would like to present an anthology on contemporary Bangladeshi poetry edited and translated by Hassanal Abdullah. Abdullah has lived in the United States for a long time and has long made a name for himself as a poet, translator and editor.
In this collection, 38 poets from Bangladesh are presented in the order of their date of birth, each with three to eight poems. The period extends from the partition of India in 1947 to the present. This large selection alone shows the diversity of modern poetry in Bangladesh. In addition to a foreword by Nicholas Birns, professor at New York University, there is a contribution by the translator and editor in which he goes into greater detail on the principles according to which he selected and translated the poems. He particularly points out that he has gone to great lengths to translate the tone and peculiarities of the style of the various authors into English. Numerous experts helped him polishing and improving the rough drafts, but also in some cases the authors themselves. The translator particularly emphasizes that each of these translation projects is, to a large extent, teamwork. In my opinion, the result turned out well!
The poetry collected in this anthology shows the poet as an individual, man or woman (there are some excellent female poets in Bangladesh), Muslim or Hindu, sophisticated Dhaka-based intellectual or poor poet from the rural area. Some poems are inspired by folk songs and poems, other clearly know modern world literature well and show the influence of modernist poetry. Universal topics as love, family life, loneliness, political struggle – many of the authors were involved in the 1952 Language Movement and the Liberation War 1971. Spirituality and the role of religion are also reflected in the poetry of this anthology. One example by Shamsur Rahman, probably the most prolific and popular poet in Bengal after Tagore and Kazi Nasrul Islam, the two founding fathers of modern Bengal poetry:
Roaming around a lot, they, five of them,
Finally, before dusk, came to sit under
An age-old tree to alleviate their tiredness.
A bird from within the branches,
Asked, “Tell me, who are you?”
Answering the question, the travelers
Got deep into their conscience.
One of them said, “I do have a great
Interest in Hinduism.”
The second one’s voice sounded
Like a flute, “I am a Buddhist monk.”
The third one said, “I am a devout Christian.”
Immediately, uttered the fourth one,
“I submitted myself to the lord of the land
And sky; I am a Muslim.”But, the fifth traveler, smiled a bit,
Holding an insect in his hand
And showing great curiosity,
He replied, “I am nothing but a Human.”
(tr. Hassanal Abdullah)
An overview with the short biographies of the authors and the references close this beautiful volume. Anyone who would like to get an overview of the diversity of contemporary poetry from Bangladesh will be well served with this anthology. The book was made possible by financial support by the Queens Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Well done!
Contemporary Bangladeshi Poetry (tr. Hassanal Abdullah), Cross Cultural Communications / New Feral Press, New York 2019
Samuel Beckett is one of the most discussed and reviewed authors of the 20th century. The pessimistic, often hopeless view of the world that the author shows us in his work appears unbearable at first glance, but the apparent senselessness and absurdity of existence is softened by the black humor typical of Beckett.
For the audience of his pieces in the 1950s, this was an unusual, and for many also shocking, approach. Beckett, the deeply private and shy man, unwillingly turned into an existentialist author par excellence – even if he rightly saw himself as a literary loner – his plays became enormous theatrical successes, their author received the Nobel Prize (one of the few cases in which the committee in Stockholm was right), in many countries his work is read in school and the author has become a modern classic.
So, there is nothing more obvious than making Beckett the subject of a modest blog post. Especially since Beckett was – and is! – a very important author for my own intellectual development. And because, after everything I know about him, he must have been a very likeable person. As is well known, this is something exceptionally rare among writers …
Since so incredibly much has been written about Beckett’s works – comparable only to Kafka in this respect -, it is difficult for me to choose one of his works for a review. The danger of repeating something that some other and possibly more erudite mind has already written in a more interesting way seems too great to me.
Instead, a few lines will follow about a book that deals with a certain, rarely noticed, but nevertheless very important aspect of Beckett’s work: his relationship to Germany and to the German language and culture.
From November 2017 to July 2018, an excellent exhibition entitled German fever, Beckett in Deutschland took place at the Literaturmuseum der Moderne (Modern Literature Museum) in tranquil Marbach am Neckar in Germany. Documents from various archives and collections were made available to the public for the first time in an excellently curated form, including the so-called German Diaries, Beckett’s notes during his extensive trip to Germany from September 1936 to April 1937.
Marbach, Schiller’s birthplace, is the seat of the Deutsche Schillerstiftung (German Schiller Foundation) and the Deutsches Literaturarchiv (German Literature Archive), in which the bequests (and pre-bequests) of many German authors are stored and scientifically edited. In addition to various other series of publications of these institutions, the Marbach catalogs and the Marbach magazine appear on a regular basis. They showcase and document the exhibitions of the museum. A fantastic treasure trove for anyone interested in German literature and I can also highly recommend a visit to the museum itself.
The double volume of the Marbacher Magazin discussed here contains, in addition to the carefully compiled catalog section with images of the exhibits and their transcription and explanation, a longer essay by the authors of the volume, Mark Nixon and Dirk Van Hulle. The result is an attractive volume of almost 250 pages. It is particularly gratifying that the band is bilingual (German / English).
In the summer of 1928, the young Beckett – at that time a poorly paid lecturer in Paris who was working on his first publications and occasionally assignments as an assistant and researcher for James Joyce – met his cousin Peggy Sinclair during a stay in Dublin and fell in love with her. At the end of August, Beckett traveled to Kassel for the first time, where Peggy lived with her parents, who were tremendously interested in art. Even before meeting Peggy, Beckett had begun to systematically study German literature and to learn German.
In the period up to 1931 there were numerous, sometimes extensive, visits to Kassel. Beckett was a welcome guest with the Sinclairs, who introduced the cultured young man to German-language literature and music. Peggy’s father was an art dealer and found in Beckett an inquisitive listener who, under the influence of the experienced Sinclair, got more and more interested in German art. Beckett was particularly fond of Dürer and his contemporaries, but also in contemporary art. Additionally, he used his stays in Germany to improve his German language skills and to deal more systematically with modern literature.
It may come as a surprise that Beckett’s all-time favorite novel (and not just in German) was Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest. Even in later years he read the novel again and again with never-ending enthusiasm and recommended it to friends and colleagues. The fact that Effi Briest was also Peggy’s favorite novel may have played a role here, although admittedly it is an excellent novel.
Of course, Beckett also read the classics Goethe and Schiller. While he was not particularly impressed by Schiller, whom he found slightly too emotional and idealistic, he valued Goethe far more – which did not prevent him from breaking off reading Goethe’s Faust at a certain point. On the other hand, he was enthusiastic about Walther von der Vogelweide and especially Hölderlin, who was much closer to him as a person than the classics.
Beckett’s love affair with Peggy ended as early as 1929, but his regular visits to Kassel lasted until 1931. In 1932 he visited Peggy, then terminally ill with tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Bad Wildungen. Peggy died there a year later, just 22 years old. Beckett processed his experiences in Kassel in his novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which was written at the time but was only published posthumously.
In addition to art and literature, philosophy also played a major role for young Beckett. For Joyce, who was working on Finnegans Wake at the time, he tracked down a volume of Fritz Mauthner’s work on the critic of language. It would be an interesting subject to examine Mauthner’s influence on Beckett’s work, which should not be underestimated. For Beckett, Schopenhauer’s pessimistic worldview became an antidote to the idealism of the German classics. In addition to Hölderlin’s Gesammelte Werke (Collected Works), Beckett also acquired the entire Schopenhauer in German and kept both editions throughout his life, reading and annotating them extensively.
Beckett was rather active as a writer in the 1930s, but much of what he wrote remained unpublished until after his death. During this time Beckett was more and more in doubt as to whether it was even possible to adequately express his thoughts in English. In addition to the influence of language-critical philosophy and a French-speaking environment, the fact that Ireland – and the English language associated with it – was traumatic for him also played a role. His recurring painful arguments with his mother, a woman who can easily be imagined in a play by Strindberg, also made it appear necessary for Beckett to radically free himself from this influence by “emigrating” into another language. The natural choice for this was French, although the exhibition makes it clear that Beckett also attempted writing in German.
In this situation critical for his development, Beckett undertook an extended trip to Germany, which he documented meticulously in diaries, the originals of which were also shown in the exhibition. From September 1936 to April 1937 he visited Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, Halle, Weimar and Munich, among others.
The journals of the trip are on the one hand extremely interesting because the foreign visitor recorded and commented on the situation in Nazi Germany without illusions, but on the other hand they also provide information about the aesthetic development that Beckett went through during this time. In every city he visits he has a plan of which museums and exhibitions he wants to visit, he takes notes, finds intellectuals who quite openly flaunt their disgust for the Nazis. Occasionally, persuasion and a small bribe also helps to see works of the so-called degenerate artists, which, however, are also shown in special exhibitions by the Nazis – before these works are destroyed, sold or hidden in some storage room. Beckett knows it will be the last opportunity in a long time to see it all all over again. Here, too, it would be interesting to demonstrate in detail how Beckett was influenced in the post-WWII stage designs he had in mind for his plays by the art that he experienced during these years, especially during his visits to Germany.
A special surprise for me was the information that Beckett wrote his first play Mittelalterliches Dreieck (Medieval Triangle) in 1936 – in German! The play remained a fragment, but it becomes clear that Beckett toyed with the idea of becoming a German-writing author. He also translated his poem Cascando into German and created long lists of German words that document his seriousness with this undertaking.
Beckett, who had joined the French Resistance during the occupation of the country, soon sought contact with Germany again after the end of the war. With the publishers Peter Suhrkamp and later with his successor Siegfried Unseld he established a relationship that lasted for decades and that went well beyond the usual author-publisher business relationship. This relationship was to become of central importance for the worldwide outreach and success of his work. Beckett’s plays appeared in a trilingual edition (French / English / German), an idea that appealed tremendously to Beckett. It is also significant to note that Beckett played a major role in the German translation, which was a real co-production. Beckett was not very satisfied with Elmar Tophoven’s first attempts at translation and suggested that the young man, who was just in Paris, visit him and work on the translation together. The manuscripts in the exhibition show how painstaking Beckett’s work with the translator couple Elmar and Erika Tophoven was.
A nice character trait of Beckett was his personal loyalty and integrity. He made for example sure that “his” translators should translate everything from him and he also campaigned for this at Suhrkamp, his publishing house. Although Beckett was an extremely meticulous worker to whom every detail was important, the correspondence, especially between Beckett and Unseld, is warm and friendly, even amicable. Although both men were known to be averse to sentimentality, Unseld, who immediately recorded important writers’ meetings afterwards, was visibly touched when the seriously ill Beckett kissed him on both cheeks when they last met. (I imagine Unseld had to see Thomas Bernhard after that, and anyone familiar with the Unseld-Bernhard correspondence knows that Bernhard was infinitely more difficult to deal with).
The last two chapters of the catalog deal with Beckett’s work as a theater director of seven(!) of his own plays with the Schillertheater Berlin and his collaboration with the Süddeutscher Rundfunk on various television productions. Here, too, Beckett shows himself to be a hard worker, who always goes to great lenghts to prepare himself precisely, who learns his plays by heart in German and also uses German to a large extent at work. For each of his productions, he wrote a separate director’s book beforehand with detailed comments on the planned production. Occasionally he also changes little things in the text, still tweaking every little formulation. And again remarkable: his friendly treatment of a well-coordinated team that he trusts, above all his favorite actors Horst Bollmann and Stefan Wigger. His openness to the new medium of television and the possibilities it offers – and the freedom that Süddeutscher Rundfunk gives him for it – is all very well documented in this beautiful catalog book.
German fever opens up an unfamiliar view of an author you think you know. A book that I can recommend to anyone who is even a little interested in Samuel Beckett and his work. Kudos to the people in Marbach and elsewhere who make such meaningful exhibitions and publications possible.
Mark Nixon/Dirk Van Hulle: German fever. Beckett in Deutschland, Deutsche Schillergesellschaft, Marbach am Neckar 2017, Marbacher Magazin 158/159
The story of Forty Steps by the Bangladeshi author Kazi Anis Ahmed (a.k.a. K Anis Ahmed – the name is in this form on the book cover and title page) begins with an end: Mr. Shikdar, a respected citizen of the sleepy provincial town of Jamshedpur somewhere in Bengal after the partition of India in 1947, has just been buried. Now he is waiting for the angels Munkar and Nakir, who, according to Koranic tradition, question the deceased about their lives and register the good and bad deeds and then decide if the departed will go to heaven or to hell – but not before the mourners have moved at least forty paces from the grave . As Mr. Shikdar counts the slowly receding steps in his grave, he lets his life go by once more in his mind…
How is it possible that a dead person can have such thoughts? Well, maybe he’s not really dead and after a faint he was quickly buried without a prior medical examination of the corpse – but why? Or is he – like Schrödinger’s cat – both alive and dead in his grave, at least until he has counted the forty steps? Or maybe we readers are just victims of a literary joke by the author?
Be that as it may, the reader takes part in Shikdar’s life confession, in the course of which we not only witness the unrealized dreams and disappointments of his life, but also get to know the most important people who determine his fate.
There is the Englishman Dawson, an unsuccessful art student, whom Shikdar befriends during the latter’s studies at medical school. Dawson arouses Shikdar’s interest in art. Later, Dawson tries to gain a foothold in his home country for a while, but returns disappointed – rejected by English society as an outsider who has “gone native” – back to Bengal to open a furniture business.
Then there is Molla, the nominal religious leader of the small town, who is a quite enterprising fellow and who finds in Shikdar an unexpected business partner. Shikdar “knows” a lot about documents, i.e. how to falsify sales contracts from real estate transactions well, so that land goes smoothly from the hands of the real owners to those of more capable people (= Molla and Shikdar) – a practice still a common practice in contemporary Bangladesh.To Shikdar’s defense it has to be added that the person with the criminal energy here is Molla, with Shikdar giving in reluctantly – because he is weak and loves to have a bit luxury in his life.
Then there is the beautiful Begum Shikdar, significantly younger than her husband and not averse to erotic adventures. When she finally gets pregnant, her blond child unfortunately dies during birth and is buried hurriedly at night almost without witnesses – with the exception of Molla, Shikdar’s partner in this suspicious enterprise as well. Dawson, on the other hand, is spending more and more time in the neighboring town, where he allegedly has an illegitimate daughter…
And then of course there is Mr. Shikdar, a good-natured person with no outstanding talents or particular energy, whose leanings for comfort and lack of resolve often stand in his way during his life. Small and large events such as the hustle and bustle of the fish sellers or the occasional senseless violence that flares up between Muslims and Hindus in the community are accepted with the same devotion to fate as something that has not changed in living memory and will not change in the future.
All in all, a rather uneventful life that the people we meet are leading and which is shown to the reader with humor and gentle irony. An example: Mr. Shikdar comes home from the big city without a diploma. But since there is no medical assistance in town, he is still often visited as a healer and asked for advice. For all sorts of actual and imagined ailments, he usually administers harmless medication, the sale of which ensures his livelihood; He also promotes birth control – but only until he takes on the part-time job of the ninety-year-old midwife, who has gone completely blind. After that, the issue of birth control loses all appeal for him …
The ease with which the author jumps back and forth between realism and fantasy in this narrative is amazing. As relentlessly as the obvious weaknesses of their main characters are shown, however ridiculous they often appear – they are portrayed with sympathy and warmth. The trivial and the fantastic, the real and the sublime, in this masterful story they are interwoven in the most beautiful way.
It is also worth mentioning that the story was written in English. Bangladeshi writers write mainly in English and Bengali (Bangla); however, texts in English often differ from texts in Bengali in regards of their sociocultural context: texts written in English tend to deal more with the educated and relatively wealthy class – the common people and especially the rural population often only appear marginally. Kazi Anis Ahmed, together with several other authors, has made a significant contribution to breaking up this traditional dichotomy with his literary work.
In recent years there has been a flourishing of English-language literary publications in Bangladesh – both in the original and in translations from Bengali. Magazines such as Six Seasons Review, the literature pages of English-language daily newspapers such as The Daily Star and New Age and the publications of the publishers Bengal Lights Books, Bengal Publications and Daily Star Books, as well as Dhaka Lit Fest, an annual international literature festival, are an expression of this development.
A word about the author: Kazi Anis Ahmed was born in 1970 in Dhaka. Forty Steps was originally published in 2001 in Minnesota Review to great critical acclaim. The World In My Hands, a collection of stories, followed in 2013, and in 2014, he published his first novel, Good Night, Mr. Kissinger. Apart from regularly contributing to international media such as The Guardian, TIME or The New York Times, he co-curated also a special Granta edition on Bangladesh. Ahmed is the co-founder of the University of Liberal Arts in Dhaka, as well as the publisher of the newspaper Dhaka Tribune and other media outlets. He is the co-director of the annual Dhaka LitFest, as well as the director of Gemcom, a group of businesses founded by his father. He is to my knowledge the only writer who owns a successful organic tea estate – Kazi Tea is exported to many countries.
The book edition I used is bilingual. The English original text is followed by the Bengali translation by Manabendra Bandyopadhyay – the typeface of the Bangla version alone is a pleasure! A nice initiative by Bengal Lights Books to make this masterful narrative accessible to those Bengali speakers who do not speak good English.
In summary: this story is a small gem that I like very much!
K Anis Ahmed: Forty Steps, Bengal Lights Books, Dhaka 2014 (bi-lingual edition English/Bengali, tr. Manabendra Bandyopadhyay)
I Remember Abbu by Bangladeshi writer Humayun Azad is a short novel about a loving father-daughter relationship, but also a book about loss and memory.
The narrator, a girl or young adult woman remembers her early childhood, and especially her Abbu (father) and the special bond they shared. There is also an Ammu (mother), but in the light of the future events that are revealed later on in the book, the narrator is telling mainly her father’s story.
There is nothing spectacular in the first chapters of the novel; father, mother and daughter form an average family that obviously belongs to the educated middle class (the father teaches in University as we learn later on). In short chapters that are written from the perspective of a small child, we see how the girl learns to walk and to speak, how it sleeps in the same bed with her parents, how her father invents names and little stories for his daughter and so on. The first painful experience comes with the arrival of some kittens that are later thrown out again out of fear for the child’s health. The father, driven by a bad conscience, returns later to the place where he released the cats, but they are gone.
The averageness of the family and the experiences are underlined by the fact that there are only three protagonists (and a few passing figures without real importance for the novel), and none of them has a name. It is an archetypical small family, where the only child receives much attention and love from both her parents.
But there is a certain moment when things change. The father is absent more frequently from home, becomes less talkative and starts to get more serious and concerned about things that the child doesn’t understand. Only much later, when she is already grown up and reads her father’s diary from that period, things fall into place for the narrator and the reasons for her father’s change become clear.
Political tension is growing in the late 1960s and early 1970s in what was then known as East Pakistan and became later Bangladesh. The fight about the recognition of Bengali (Bangla) as a second official language in Pakistan, the non-recognition of the election results in Pakistan that would have made East Pakistan’s politician Mujibur Rahman President, the declaration of independence of Bangladesh, and the bloody genocidal war of Pakistan’s army in Bangladesh, it is all reflected in its consequences on the family in the novel. Abbu, as an intellectual and potential political leader has to hide from the army, the family flees to the village, on the way there they witness atrocities committed by the Pakistani army and finally Abbu leaves the family to join the underground fight against the oppressors.
From history books we know the result of the political struggle for freedom and political independence: Bangladesh became an internationally recognized independent country after much bloodshed and the military support of the neighbor India. Millions of people perished as a result of the fights and the starvation that followed. And while the victory over the demons (this is how Pakistan’s forces are called by Abbu) in this fight is welcomed by the people, Abbu’s family is waiting in vain for his return…
At a mere 123 pages, this is a small novel, written mostly in a rather simple language. The simplicity of the child’s thoughts, her struggle to understand why her beloved Abbu changed so much, and why he disappeared, are evoking strong emotions in the narrator, and also in the reader. The diary part, written by Abbu himself, is of course much more reflected and elaborated. It is indeed heartbreaking to see how historical events destroy the lives of otherwise perfectly happy families. But for the narrator, reading her Abbu’s diary may help her to come to terms with her tragic loss.
This was the first book by a contemporary Bengali writer I read. It was also the first book published by Amazon Crossing I read; the imprint used to be rather active for some years to get books from “smaller” languages translated into English. The translation by Arunava Sinha seems flawless.
The author Humayun Azad was a lifelong advocate of the Bengali language and one of the most important intellectuals in East Pakistan. His critical voice against radical Islamism and against the suppression of women made him a target of terrorists. In 2004, there was an assassination attempt of several men who stabbed him a few times in the neck and jaw. Against all odds, he survived; but some months later he died in Munich, where he was spending time as a researcher at the University of Munich.
Since I will be relocating to Dhaka soon, you can expect more reviews of South Asian, especially Bengali/Bangla literature in the future.
Humayun Azad: I Remember Abbu, translated by Arunava Sinha, Amazon Crossing, Seattle 2019
The novel “The Price of Freedom” by the French-speaking author Matéo Maximoff recounts the life of a group of Roma in Moldova in the first half of the 19th century, at a time when this ethnic group was still living as slaves in what is today Romania. As the title of the book already indicates, the struggle for the freedom of the Roma – as shown by the example of the characters in the novel – is the central theme of the book.
Young Istvan, the main character of the book, works as a clerk and librarian in the court of the rich landowner Andrei. He owes this position, which is unusual for a Rom, to the fact that Andrei, who is ruling his estate as a mostly benevolent patriarch, recognized the intelligence of the young Istvan early on and promoted him. Istvan grew up together with Andrei’s sons of about the same age and thus, compared to the situation of his family and the other Roma who work for Andrei, achieved a “privileged” position. This, however, has no legal effect on his status as a slave and personal property of the landowner; as a slave, he is always at the mercy of his owner. This special position isolates him both from his own community, where on the one hand he is respected but also viewed with suspicion, and also from the community of free people with which he lives on a daily basis.
Another outsider in this environment is Yon, who is not only the landlord’s energetic right-hand man, but also his illegitimate son – a secret that is known to Istvan. Yon’s competent and energetic work distinguishes him from the legitimate sons of the landowner. While the Roma fear him as the powerful and sometimes ruthless representative of Andrei – he can impose severe punishment at any time -, Yon knows very well that he can never achieve a position that would be in line with his great energy and ambition; this position will be reserved for Andrei’s legitimate sons. The two outsiders Istvan and Yon have an occasionally conflict-ridden relationship, but one that is also based on mutual respect. Since they have known each other since childhood, a strange friendship, characterized at the same time by rivalry, has developed over the course of time. The role that both have to play as outstanding representatives of their respective social groups is simply too contradictory to get along without the tensions that become more and more apparent as the book progresses.
Maximoff chooses a clever introduction to his story: the book starts with the big market day in springtime. During this occasion, slaves are also sold and bought. Yon buys a group of Roma, including Lena, a girl that he obviously intends to turn into his lover. To protect Lena from Yon’s stalking, Istvan, who got Andrei’s blessing for this, gets engaged to Lena – which not only annoys Yon very much, but also fills Istvan’s lover Rayka with great jealousy. She had hoped that her relationship with Istvan would lead to marriage and sees her prospects threatened. Rayka’s jealousy is at the beginning of a fateful and dramatic chain of actions that culminate in the flight of Istvan, his family and a few other Roma; an escape that is of course not simply accepted by Andrei and his people, who suspect that Istvan murdered one of Andrei’s sons.
During their flight, the Roma group around Istvan faces an outlawed group of Roma who live in the remote mountains and who have realized their dream of a free life without oppressors. After initial reluctance, they accept Istvan and his group because of his honesty, courage and cleverness and let them join their community.
In the looming “showdown” between Yon – supported by the military, which is involved in the search for those who have fled – and Istvan and his Roma, a fight with great severity and brutality takes place, which will lead as a result to many victims on both sides. But violence is not the last word in this novel. In 1855, the political leader of the country, Alexander Ghika finally abolishes slavery in all of Romania (Moldova and Wallachia). And the story of Istvan comes to a resolution during a later court case that ties all the loose ends of the story together, giving it a last surprising twist. I don’t want to reveal more here in order not to spoil this very exciting story unnecessarily for readers.
I liked the book. It introduces the reader to the life of the Roma in the 19th century and I find it very embarrassing that although the slavery of the African Americans in the south of the USA is well known and explored, while at the same time, the fact that the Roma in Moldova and Wallachia were living in very similar conditions during the same period, is largely unknown in Europe and elsewhere. The book is shedding light on the plight of the Roma, and the reader has to be grateful to the author for this. The story itself is told with a lot of tempo and a feeling for dialogue, and even if not all characters are drawn without clichés, this story is definitely worth reading. It is also interesting that the author at least in passing mentions the fall in prices on the market for slaves; this is another parallel to slavery in the American South. Slavery disappeared in the end because it couldn’t survive in the changing economic and technical conditions.
The author, Matéo Maximoff, was born in Spain to a Kalderash Rom father from Russia – hence the Slavic family name – and a Manouche Sinto mother from France (she was a cousin of Django Reinhardt). At the age of eighteen or nineteen – his exact birthday is unknown – he moved to France with his family during the Spanish Civil War. Maximoff was the first one of his clan who had learned to read and write early on. While he was in prison – three people were killed in an argument within his clan, whereupon the police arrested indiscriminately everyone from his family – he began to write his first novel, which was later to be followed by ten more. After the end of World War II, Maximoff, who survived internment in a Nazi concentration camp himself but had lost many family members, began his successful career as the first Roma writer ever. Over several decades he was also an activist and fighter for the equality of his ethnic group in France. He also translated big parts of the Bible into the Kalderash Romanes language.
I read the book in the German translation that was published in 1955. It seems that none of his books are in print at this moment, neither in the French original, nor in English or German translation.
There is a very interesting award-winning Romanian film that also deals with Roma slavery: Aferim!. I can highly recommend the film; you can watch a trailer here.
Matéo Maximoff: Le prix de la liberté. Wallada, 1996; Der Preis der Freiheit. Morgarten Verlag Conzett & Huber, Zurich 1955 (tr. Bernhard Jolles)
Moritz Daniel Oppenheim was an important German painter of the 19th century. He was probably the first Jewish visual artist to gain world renown. At an advanced age, he wrote an autobiography intended as a memoir for his family; it was not published during his lifetime. In 1924, his grandson Alfred Oppenheim, who was also a painter, published the manuscript as a book; it was reprinted in 1999 and 2013.
According to family memories, Oppenheim was born in late December 1799 in Hanau, a town east of Frankfurt am Main. (Wikipedia and other sources report a date of birth at the beginning of January 1800.) His Jewish family lived in economically relatively secure conditions, even though the Hanau Jews still had to live in the ghetto at that time and had to face a variety of discriminations. Although the legal betterment of the Jews in Germany at this time made progress in the wake of the emancipatory efforts of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing or Moses Mendelssohn, and especially after the French Revolution, it should nevertheless take decades before the legal equality of Jews in Germany was realized. Oppenheim’s autobiography is so interesting because it not only traces an individual artist’s life, but because it is also a practical example of how this process of Jewish emancipation in Germany in the 19th Century progressed: slowly and characterized by numerous setbacks.
A relatively big part of Oppenheim’s autobiography is devoted to his childhood and youth. Loving and caring parents who focused on providing their children witha good education evidently laid the foundation for his well-balanced character and for being knowledgeable about many subjects, not only about those necessary for a later career. Oppenheim attended the local Talmud Torah school, but received also private lessons. Later he went to a regular high school, together with Christian students. In addition, he and one of his brothers received permission from the father to attend the local drawing academy, where his artistic talent showed early; but young Moritz Daniel didn’t initially plan a professional future as an artist – he originally wanted to become a doctor. From his mother, the young Oppenheim inherited his love for literature and theater – the mother read for example Goethe’s Hermann and Dorothea and attended sometimes theater performances together with her son; these visits inspired Moritz Daniel to set up a puppet theater in the attic of their home (this feels a bit reminiscent of Wilhelm Meister).
What follows are the years at the Hanau and later at the Munich Academy, in which Oppenheim trains his talent as a draftsman and in oil painting. In retrospect, Oppenheim remembers his teachers and supporters of that period with warmth and gratitude, but he also peppers his memoirs with a few humorous anecdotes. The self-portrait, which he created as a 16-year-old, is already proof of his considerable talent and self-confidence.
To broaden his horizons Oppenheim studied afterwards in Paris and later in Italy, the country for which so many German artists of his time were yearning. In Paris, he seems to have been a frequent visitor of the legendary Café de la Régence; in his biography he mentions the meeting with Aaron Alexandre there, a rabbi born in Germany, who emigrated to France during the French Revolution and who is remembered today mainly as the author of the monumental chess problem book Collection des plus beaux Problèmes d’Echecs. Alexandre was considered to be one of the world’s best chess players of his time.
More productive in artistic terms was for Oppenheim his subsequent longer stay in Italy. He attached himself looseley to the circle of the Nazarenes, an art movement that exercised a certain influence on him, but which he quickly outgrew. Particularly valuable was in addition to his contacts with Friedrich Overbeck in Rome especially the friendship with the then already famous Bertel Thorvaldsen. The senior Danish sculptor and draftsman was in Rome something like Oppenheim’s artistic mentor, and he provided artistic guidance as well as contacts with potential customers who would be interested to buy Oppenheim’s works.
If Oppenheim had expected that he would not experience any anti-Jewish resentment among fellow artists in his Italian environment, he was wrong. Both among his colleagues and among Italian acquaintances, he experienced frequently more or less open exclusion as soon as he was recognized as a Jew. In order to avoid this exclusion, several painters of Jewish origin converted to Christianity at that time (as did also the writers Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Börne). Oppenheim, who was obviously much more deeply rooted in Judaism than many others, did not follow this path. He managed to gain broad recognition and success in his later life as a Jewish painter in Germany.
One can attest Oppenheim an excellent sense of the social position of his clients and other people important for his advancement. He almost effortlessly won major Jewish art collectors, such as those from the Rothschild family, as buyers for portraits. When the still rather young Oppenheim visited Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Weimar in 1827 – the visit was preceded by an exchange of letters in which Goethe apparently obtained a positive impression of the young man’s talent and character -, he was awarded at Goethe’s request with an order and a paid professorship with no teaching commitments. From that moment on, Oppenheim was a man who became known in important circles also outside the Jewish community.
What followed was a very successful life as an artist; Oppenheim presents himself as a man for whom a fulfilled family life was very important and he also seems to have lived in great harmony as a husband (after the early death of his first wife, he married a second time) and father of six children. I found this second part of the autobiography – apart from the sections on the 1848/49 revolution – a little less interesting, although all in all this brief autobiography is an important and instructive document.
Here are a few more of Oppenheim’s works. He was particularly popular as a portrait painter, as the following three portraits of writers illustrate:
Scenes from Jewish life in Germany were another frequent subject of Oppenheim’s artworks. Prints based on Oppenheim’s paintings were a frequent adornment of many Jewish homes in the 19th and 20th centuries. They not only showed the everyday life of Jewish families who succeeded to leave the ghetto behind, but would also provide a clear message – particularly in the next painting -: that it is possible to be a Jew, following the religious norms of the forefathers, and at the same time to be a German patriot, fighting as a volunteer in the War of Liberation:
While Oppenheim’s autobiography seems to be untranslated, the following bi-lingual catalogue contains not only a detailed biography and essays about his art, but also reproductions of most of his works and is therefore highly recommended for anyone with an interest in this important German-Jewish artist.
Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Erinnerungen eines deutsch-jüdischen Maler (Memoirs of a German-Jewish Painter), Manutius, Heidelberg 1999
Georg Heuberger / Anton Merk (eds.), Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Die Entdeckung des jüdischen Selbstbewußtseins in der Kunst /Jewish Identity in 19th Century Art, Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt am Main 1999 (bi-lingual German/English)